Government by slogan?

Leon Cook

July 20, 2020

In the EU referendum, Vote Leave used “take back control”. It captivated the hearts and minds of those who felt left behind by the political class. Their promise was the ability to finally protest and take back power from the “faceless” bureaucratic bloc that is the EU – those “in control”. This slogan is, in part, a significant reason that the referendum saw an additional 2.8 million people who do not usually vote turn up to the ballot boxes in June 2016.

Dominic Cummings, director of Vote Leave, was the brains behind “take back control”. So, when Boris Johnson hired him as his principal adviser, it came as no surprise that we saw the effective deployment of another hugely effective slogan – “get Brexit done” – attractive not only to those infuriated with the continued delay and delivery of Brexit, but also appealed to those Remainers bored of the never-ending news cycle on the subject. The slogan and its message arguably played a large part in securing the biggest general election win for the Conservative party since 1987.

Since the pandemic hit, we have seen a similar reliance on slogans being consistently used in government messaging – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed or criticised. Using the one-liners to get candidates elected or to win a referendum is one thing, but using them to marshal a national response to a pandemic is entirely another.

Historically though, media and public relations campaigns with a clear and concise “call to action” have gained more support from the public than those without it. Throughout my career, I have witnessed the power of effective communications driving home a single and effective message. It, therefore, begs the question: is the British government ruling by slogan?

“Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives”

In his 23 March speech to the nation, the prime minister urged the country “to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives”. Plastered across the television, radio, social media and billboards, this was the beginning of what was to become a very familiar style of communications from the government. The slogans evoked emotion. It was memorable. But most importantly, it worked.

It was simple, direct and provided adequate, understandable reasoning for a request never before seen in peacetime. Whether or not you participated in the weekly clapping for the NHS, it’ll be clear to you how highly this country regards this precious institution. The government told us that if we continue with our everyday lives, more people will be put in harm’s way. So instead, we all – well, most of us – stayed at home. Visits to our friends, parents and grandparents came to an abrupt stop. The government’s use of simple and clear messaging was exactly what I advise clients. However, anything can work in small doses. An overdose of anything could kill the original purpose.

“Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”

Next came the reopening phase – perhaps the most challenging task so far for this government. On 10 May, the prime minister set out the steps for reopening the country, attempting to curtail the economic damage of Covid-19. Alongside this came a new message – “stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.

This new slogan was ridiculed across social media and in the press. Many took issue particularly with “stay alert”, which was described as a meaningless, ambiguous statement. While the internet can be unrepresentative of the population as a whole, the online commentariat had a point. The message was ambiguous. We can go out, so long as we “stay alert”. To make matters worse, Number 10 had to issue clarifications for the rules, and we witnessed a slip in the government’s communications effectiveness.

“Build, Build, Build”

It must, then, come as no surprise that last month’s announcement of reforms to the country’s planning system was accompanied by a reversion to a simple and clear style of messaging. This time, the message was as simplistic as they come – “build, build, build”.

The government appears to have recognised previous errors and is reverting to clear cut messaging once again – albeit in short doses. It’s also evident that these aren’t merely catchy slogans, but actual policies – which is especially the case for the Covid-19 mantra.

As it stands, the slogans will likely continue. With the perceived success of the initial Covid-19 command and track record of government by simple message, as long as Dominic Cummings is advising the prime minister, we will see more of the same going forward.


Written by Leon Cook

Leon Cook is founder and director of Atticus Communications.


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